Photo Discs: The perfect heirloom?…or a broken promise?

Are compact discs really as archival as we’d been lead to believe? Photo by

Every photographer has heard this question. If they haven’t, then they must be enjoying around 10 years retirement by now. That question is: “Do I get a disc with all my images?”

However, the question I always have is: Why do you want a disc? Convenience? To save space? Economics? Or is it Longevity? Because a recent investigation has shown the latter has begun to succumb to the most telling and inescapable of tests: Time!

My life changed dramatically around the year 1989. No, I’m not talking about launch of The Simpsons on Fox (though I could argue its merits in my life as well). I am talking about the beginnings of my music cassette library’s conversion to compact disc!

Being a child of my parents who, at the time, still owned their TV/VCR/Stereo repair shop, I was quick to be introduced to new trends in audio. I still remember heading to Camelot Music in Kentucky Oaks Mall where CD and record racks sat prominent in the aisle while the cassette racks lined the walls around me. It was there that I picked up my first CD, the soundtrack to the movie “Beetlejuice“. Soon, I would find several of my favorite cassettes replaced. Everything from The Bangles’ “Different Light” and The Monkees’ “Pool It!” To Cyndi Lauper’s “She’s So Unusual”.

It was a new age of music! Gone were the days of tape hiss and tedious rewinding, fast-forwarding, and flip-overs. More importantly, this was a chance to have your music in a format that would last. Where tapes would wear out and break and records would become increasingly dust-caked and mushy, these metal and plastic, silver, digital discs are designed to outlast me with no change in its precision sound! That’s it! One more stress off my shoulders! Now I can collect and enjoy my music without worrying about its quality going to pot before I do!…Right?

Fast-forward (Doh!) 25 years. Compact discs, as we know them, are nearing their 30th anniversary. And, while their popularity has peaked and their heyday is an increasingly fading light, we still use the disc concept in the form of CDs, CDRs, DVDs, Blu-Ray, etc. However, today their use varies greatly anywhere from music and record keeping to movies and photo storage. And part of this, whether you might realize it or not, is likely because of one underlying “truth”.

A “truth” that amazed our parents, was accepted without question by us, and was practically a genetic hand-me-down to our kids. And that “truth” is: The disc format lasts for a century or more and is the most stable, archival, and durable method of preserving our media. In fact, I would bet the only reason we haven’t seen their presence totally dissipate into the cloud is because of people’s need to have some kind of tangible, archival record to hold in their hand with no fears of hard drive crashes or environmental impacts taking them away. Well, I hate to burst your bubble, but…

This week, NPR released an article titled “How Long Do CDs Last? It Depends, But Definitely Not Forever”. In this article they discuss the problems associated with the purported longevity of CDs. Be sure to click the title to read the full article, but, in short, it says CDs, like any other tangible object subjected to Earth’s many environments, can be altered and damaged. The problem is, like so many of us, even government agencies tasked with archives drank the proverbial Kool-Aid back in the 1980s.

“They just made the move because they thought anything that was digital, anything that was electronic, was going to be far superior to anything from the past,” Harper says. “And it turns out that that was indeed wrong,” the article quotes Jim Harper, president of the Property Records Industry Association.

That’s right. The 30-year-old claim of 100+ years life is being put hard to the test! And to add insult to injury, the question of just how long our CDs will last, turns out, depends on the manufacturer!

So, why do I find this article so fascinating? Well, it goes back to my original paragraph discussing the compact disc’s impact on photographers. Today, everyone wants their images on a disc. Mostly, I would say this is for convenience and storage, but I know some believe having that little silver jewel in your hand gives a sense of archival security. Now, some may find that to be a false sense of security.

Now, I am not saying to stop buying the disc from your photographer. For convenience and sharing, a disc, even one that will not outlive you, has its use. In fact, I have written blogs discussing our photo discs and their value, (The cost of quality: Why we charge for our portrait discs) and many of our portrait packages include discs. In fact, for our upper packages (such as weddings) we even include what is dubbed an archival grade DVD.

Now you say: “But Patrick, how can you claim the DVDs you use are archival grade in light of this new evidence?” Well, honestly, until the CD reaches the age of photo paper and/or celebrates its 100-year anniversary (which I might see, who knows) we will just have to take their word for it. Even then, a whole host of other problems arise, check this previous blog for more (How much is your yearbook worth? Rise of the forgotten generation).

As for recommendations on how to remedy this potential setup for portrait loss, well, considering I am not expert on every CD brand or the changes in manufacturing processes over the years, I am not a chemist who could make an educated guess on which composition is best, and I am not a renowned psychic, I would not even begin to tell you which brand to buy, if any!

However, I can recommend a better, time-tested alternative: Prints!

Having professional prints made of your treasured portraits would be the sure-fire, better alternative, as there are archival methods in the paper arena too. Not to mention the near absence of electrics failure!

Now, you say “But Patrick, you say the metal and plastic method has shown to be less than archival. How can paper and ink top that?!”

To this, I say “Simple!” Paper is tried and tested. Photo paper and printing have been around more than 100 years and, while it has seen its share of missteps, more modern methods seek to build on archival methods (see next week’s blog where I discuss why your great great grandparents’ portraits are sound while your parents’ 1970s Polaroid looks like a Instagram mess).

And, today, many professional photo printing services guarantee a 100-year life, which comes at the forefront of ongoing improvements in photo printing methods.

Lastly, you say, “But Patrick, why trust a modern professional printer’s word on their ink and paper’s 100-year archival qualities? Didn’t CDs make that 100-year promise back in the day? And many of them haven’t made it three decades!”

To this I say: True, but, even though promises of a 100-year life might seem unprovable to us in any respect, CDs, in totality, have only been around 30 years. Printing, on the other hand, has celebrated its centennial already. In this light, I would err on the side of tried and true printing methods first! Plus, if a photo fades or gets damaged, restoration is possible. If the CD degrades, well…at least you have a fancy, shiny relic to hang on your Christmas tree.



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